Don Hill still remembers his first professional gig playing saxophone on a Mardi Gras float in New Orleans, the city he grew up in.
“I was 14,” Hill said. “I played 14 hours and got paid $15. I’m 91½ now.”
Hill moved to Sunrise Manor full-time in 1977, and he’s still playing. He performs a regular monthly gig at the Italian American Club; works jobs on the Strip, including a recent performance at the House of Blues; and plays with friends in a weekly jam session in a private home near Sunset Park. His biography, “House Party Tonight: The Career of Legendary Saxophonist Don Hill,” was published last year.
Hill has been a professional musician all of his adult years, including a 55-year stint with The Treniers, an R&B and jump blues group that Hill said played an important part in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
“We were playing at a place in New Jersey in 1950, and Bill Haley was playing across the street, to watch us play,” Hill said. “He was in a cowboy band then. It was Bill Haley and the Saddlemen.”
Hill said Haley liked what Hill’s band was doing. He gave The Treniers one of his songs to record, “Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie,” which they recorded in 1954. Bill Haley and the Comets came out with a version the next year. While the Comets’ version was more financially successful, Hill feels that Haley liked The Treniers’ version enough to emulate a lot of it for the later recording.
While musical historians will probably never stop debating the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, The Treniers were there at the start playing songs such as “Rockin’ Is Our Bizness,” “Rocking on Saturday Night” and “It Rocks! It Rolls! It Swings!” in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
At 18, Hill received a music scholarship to Alabama State University, where he played in the swing band, the military band and the concert band.
He began working gigs right out of school and was hired in 1943 to tour the country with Louis Armstrong’s big band, a job he kept for three years until Armstrong switched to a six-piece band.
“He wanted me to play clarinet, but I wasn’t that great on clarinet, so he got Barney Bigard,” Hill said.
It was in the short time between Armstrong’s band and The Treniers that Hill first came to Las Vegas while playing in Gerald Wilson’s orchestra at The Tradewinds, a club that was way out of town at the time, at the current location of The Venetian.
Soon after, Hill formed his own band for a short time before twins Cliff and Claude Trenier asked him to join the band they were forming. He brought along his bass player and drummer.
“I can tell you the date I joined,” Hill said. “It was Jan. 9, 1948. I played with them until 2003 when Claude died (Cliff died in 1983). That was the end of The Treniers.”
In that 55-year span, The Treniers traveled the world and played practically every lounge on the Strip. They backed and opened for big-name performers such as Redd Foxx, Bobby Darin and Jerry Lewis. They were a hard-working band, frequently booked 52 weeks a year. They played in Las Vegas when blacks couldn’t eat in the restaurants they entertained in, and they were still playing the town when sprawling two-story motels were replaced by megaresorts and high-rises.
“In 1960 there were only three places on the Strip,” Hill said. “There was the Flamingo, the Frontier and El Rancho Vegas. We were working the Frontier one night when the El Rancho burned down. I told the drummer to play a drum solo and the rest of the band went out and watched the fire.”
After The Treniers disbanded, Hill teamed with Jazzin’ Jeanne Brei to form The Speakeasy Swingers. Brei also co-authored Hill’s biography with Sunrise-area author Dennis Griffin.
“I love that old music, and it’s a real trip to get to play with a legend like Don,” Brei said. “He’s still got more chops than most guys half his age.”
The group performs at a show recently redubbed as the Swanky Supper Club Soiree from 7 to 10 p.m. the first Thursday of each month at the Italian American Club, 2333 E. Sahara Ave.
This month, because of another special event, the show has been rescheduled to June 13. Dinner is available for purchase but is not required. Admission is free, but a $10 donation is suggested to support the musicians. Raffle tickets are available, and prizes often include free supper for two, CDs and copies of “House Party Tonight.” Reservations are suggested.
For more information about the Italian American Club, visit iacvegas.com or call 702-457-3866.
The Speakeasy Swingers are also available for private events. For more information, visit thespeakeasyswingers.com or call Brei at 702-254-3832.
Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at email@example.com or 702-380-4532.